How Spain’s Encomienda System led to Great Horrors in the Colonial Americas
European governments committed many questionable acts in the new world. Their eagerness to get a foothold in the unknown continent, along with their greed to claim its treasures for themselves, came at a heavy price for the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Spain’s conquests left behind a vast need
During the 1500s, Spain conquered regions of Central, North, and especially South America. They also conquered several islands in the Caribbean.
After leaving the Indigenous governments like the majestic Inca Empire in ruins, the Spanish conquistadors were desperate to bring their new subjects under heel. Thus, they needed a new way to assert authority quickly.
Spain’s Encomienda System was installed in several places for this purpose, most notably in Peru. This method of ruling was one where prominent and elite Spaniards were allowed to rule over native communities.
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In exchange for stealing labor and tribute from Indigenous people, the Spanish lord was supposed to pay back the community in the form of providing education and protection. In reality, the Encomienda System became a system of enslavement and served as a gateway to many of the worst horrors that came out of the colonial era.
The Encomienda System
The term ‘encomienda’ comes from the Spanish word, ‘encomendar,’ which means ‘to entrust.’ The Encomienda System was previously used throughout feudal Spain during its reconquest. In the new world, the very first encomiendas were awarded in the Caribbean by none other than Christopher Columbus.
When they were awarded, it meant that Spanish conquistadors, priests, settlers, and other colonial officials were furnished with a grant of land. These lands were usually massive and typically included several Indigenous cities, towns, villages, communities, and families that resided there.
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Indigenous people were then expected to pay tributes to their Spanish lord. These were delivered in either gold or silver, animals, crops, and anything that the lands had produced.
These Indigenous people could also be forced to work for specific amounts of time, such as in a mine or on a plantation. In return, the Spanish government expected their lords to look after their enslaved people’s welfare and convert them to Christianity.
A System of cruelty that served as a Band-Aid
The Spanish crown was initially reluctant in allowing for the granting of encomiendas in the Americas. But in their eyes, they had two problems to solve. They first needed to provide a swift reward to the conquistadors to ward off any rebellion against the crown. And secondly, they needed to install a system of governance within these newly conquered lands to ward off a potential uprising.
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Since awarding encomiendas was a fast way to solve both problems, it became Spain’s Band-Aid for the situation. When taking a step back, we see that in reality, Spain’s Encomienda System granted instant nobility to men who were only skilled at murder, theft, and torture.
Because Spain was not willing or patient enough to establish a civilized form of government in the new world, they would face more problems than they ever imagined.
The demands of the Spanish lords
Spanish lords wasted no time in abusing their newfound power. They began making unreasonable demands of the native people living on their lands. They requested excessive tribute beyond what the people could ever provide.
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These lords were blatantly inhumane and indifferent to how these people suffered under them. Whenever natural disasters like drought destroyed their crops, their lords refused to reduce their quotas. Natives were faced with either starving to death or facing lethal punishments from their overseers.
Both men and women were forced to slave away in mines for weeks on end, working in enormously deep shafts by candlelight. Their mercury mines were very hazardous, causing many to die. Hundreds of thousands of deaths occurred during the first years of the Spanish colonial era.
A spark of reform?
As conquistadors were scraping every last grain of gold from their enslaved subjects, horrendous reports of corruption and abuse were piling up in Spain. The Spanish crown had been demanding 20% tax from the conquests, mining, and thievery in the new world. It became apparent to the average citizen that these taxes was actually fueling the expansion of the Spanish Empire.
The crown had emphasized repeatedly that the Indigenous people within the Spanish colonies were not enslaved, but instead, they were Spanish subjects who also had certain rights. However, it was common knowledge that the rights of these native people were blatantly, systematically, and horrifically violated.
This led to the rise of reformers like Bartolomé de las Casas, who began predicting everything from total depopulation in the Americas to the complete damnation of all involved in the tyranny.
Finally, in 1542, King Charles V heard their pleas and implemented the ‘New Laws.’
The New Laws
The New Laws appeared to be manna from the heavens when they were passed. They comprised a series of royal ordinances that sought to end Encomienda System abuses, especially those taking place in Peru.
These laws re-established the rights of Native Peruvians. It recognized them as citizens of Spain and could no longer be forced to work against their will. They established a reasonable portion of tribute to be collected by lords, but any labor beyond that would have to be paid for.
Furthermore, existing encomiendas would be passed to the crown upon the death of the Spanish lords. No future encomiendas would be granted. In addition, any lord that abused Indigenous people or had taken part in the conquistador civil wars could lose their land grants. The king even sent a Viceroy to Lima with strict orders to enforce these laws.
Needless to say, the colonial elite was outraged with these New Laws. The Spanish lords had spent years lobbying for encomiendas to become permanent and something that could be passed down from one generation to the next.
These royal ordinances had banished all hope of generational perpetuity of these land grants in the new world. In Peru, it was well known that most Spanish settlers had participated in the conquistador civil wars. Thus, these settlers were at immediate risk of losing their encomiendas.
The settlers chose to rally around Gonzalo Pizarro, one of the leaders of the original conquest of the Incan Empire, and his brother Francisco Pizarro. A battle ensued, Pizarro defeated the royalist army and killed the king’s Viceroy.
Pizarro then ruled Peru for the next two years. It ended when another royalist army showed up and defeated him. They captured Pizarro and promptly executed him. A second rebellion under Francisco Hernández Girón occurred a few years later, but that was also extinguished.
End of the Encomienda System
Thankfully, the disgusting Encomienda System was brought to an end. King Charles V of Spain deserves a great deal of credit for recognizing human cruelty and then taking action despite tremendous pressure from his country’s elite class.
The worst part about this system was the precedent it set for the new world. Who would’ve imagined that a group of people would feel justified enough to enslave another culture for their own selfish needs?
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these conquistadors was how little value they placed on the welfare of their subjects. Their greed was so short-sighted and so ingrained in their character that they were willing to sacrifice these lives — even though their subjects represented a source of future wealth for them.
Think about that for a moment. It’s beyond frightening.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encomienda. https://www.britannica.com/topic/encomienda.
Amelie Dumont. 37 Bloody Facts About Spanish Conquistadors. https://www.factinate.com/people/37-bloody-facts-spanish-conquistadors/.
Library of Congress. Exploring the Early Americas. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/exploring-the-early-americas/interpreting-the-conquest.html.